My first tropical fishing experience occurred at the Whitsunday islands and ever since the area has held a fascination for me that has drawn me back time and time again. My first trip to the area, inspired by an early eighties Modern fishing article, happened a couple of days after I got my first car.
In hindsight it’s not hard to see how such a strong attraction arose, of all the places I have since visited throughout Australia, the Whitsundays is one of the few that actually consistently matched the post card.
I can clearly remember my first sighting of the powder blue, island studded sea as we rounded the last bend on the outskirts of Airley beach and the two weeks of mind blowing fishing that followed.
That inspirational article and photos had not exaggerated a single bit and the many subsequent return trips have only enforced its consistency.
No two trips were ever the same, such is the diversity of the coastline and available species. Equipped with a considerably larger, more capable, vessel this trip was guaranteed to be different again.
Previous trips had been confined to the limitations of a twelve-foot tinny although with the diverse nature of the adjacent coastline and inner islands this still allows huge scope.
Shute Harbour alone, has kept me busy for weeks with its unique mix of estuary and blue water species. There are places in Shute where a cast off one side of your boat will see you pulling lures through the mangroves for jacks while a cast off the other, ripping poppers over a reef edge for Spanish mackerel.
Shute jetty has hosted some remarkable catches over the years with the likes of Queenfish, northern bluefin tuna, Spanish mackerel and GT’s by day and emperor, coral trout, grunter, cod and even Barra by night.
Resident Gt”s that cruise amongst the pylons, seven inches thick through the shoulders, provide constant entertainment as they pillage the clouds of herring and demoralise the heavy handline brigade.
Pioneer bay shoreline, off Airlie beach, offers similar opportunities although being generally shallower than Shute, is slightly more orientated towards the estuary species.
The Molle group of islands (West, north, daydream, middle and molle) are accessible by small craft on a good day but in my experience the Shute and Airlie coastlines offer better fishing.
The mainland shoreline hosts many short deep clear estuaries which all fish reasonably well but if you are after some serious big river fishing then the Proserpine river is only twenty minutes away. The locals refer to the Proserpine as the best kingy water in Queensland which translates to mean that it’s probably the best spot to catch threadfin salmon south of Cairns.
Having been over the inshore fishing options on previous trips my main aim for this trip was to explore the eastern edges of the outer islands namely Hayman, Hook and Whitsunday. My offshore experience is very limited, being primarily an estuary fisho at heart, in fact this was to be my first bluewater fishing trip outside the very occasional charter that I’ve taken over the years. I think that the fact that we took marlin, two varieties of tuna, two varieties of mackerel, Giant trevally and many assorted reef fish on our first attempt says a hell of a lot about the potential of this area. In addition to the sensational blue water fishing, on the outer islands, there’s a few very pleasant little surprises for those who feel more at home in the estuaries.
We planned two trips the first being a two-night, three-day circumnavigation of Hook island. The hundred-kilometre round trip would take us through prime grounds on the passages between Hayman\ Hook and Hook\ Whitsunday plus the bombie studded stretch down the east side of Hook. We also intended to explore the two estuarine inlets at the southern end of Hook if fuel permitted. Fuel was available at Hook island observatory at the southern end of Hook, but we opted to buy a few jerrys and go self-sufficient. Fuel can also be obtained at Hayman if you are desperate although it is not encouraged.
The second trip was planned to explore the passage between Whitsunday and Hamilton islands. This was to include a visit to hill inlet, a unique pure white silica sand estuary that meets the ocean at the famous Whitehaven beach.
We launched at Able pt. marina just after sunrise and I left Nicole with the boat while I returned the car and trailer to the caravan park. Facilities at Able pt. are excellent but like Shute harbour it doesn’t have the best reputation in regard to trailer parts going walkies, especially on overnighters.
November is prime time for both fishing and boating in the Whitsundays. The water is warm enough to get most species firing and the air temperature is hot but not unbearably hot like December to March. Best of all, the prevailing sou-easters, that can make the channel crossing a nightmare for small boats, finally subside.
It worked for us, with the twenty-odd kilometre crossing being as smooth as bath water. A pod of dolphins escorted us the last few km into the Hayman\Hook passage and after a quick dip off the edge of a small sand kay we got straight into some trolling.
The manns 25+ on the Shimano outfit was the first to go off and I took first strike which turned out to be a big mistake. After a minor tussle a ten kg Spanish Mackerel was brought into the boat and released after a quick photo.
We trolled the reef edges and headlands losing an horrendous amount of lures to either coral trout or trevally, probably both, but did manage to extract a few small unidentified reefies and a lone strippie. It was back to my strike which proved to be the last for the day with a small mackerel which we kept for dinner and I promised Nicole first strike on the next mornings session.
We settled into a small bay around the back of Hook for the night and I prepared the cursed mackerel depositing the frame in the burly pot and the meat in the Baileys cooler.
There’s no shortage of protected anchorages in the Whitsundays whichever way the winds blowing but on this dead calm night any one of them would have done.
Sleeping under the stars on the deck of a 16 ft tinnie has its appeal but it’s not without its risks. Big tides and strong currents can work even the best set anchors loose and there’s no shortage of much larger vessels cruising around dusk and dawn and even into dark. To combat this, it is essential that an anchor light runs all night. The anchoring problem was reduced considerably by setting minimum and maximum depth alarm and anchor alarm on the sounder\ GPS
With the mackerel well consumed a much more immediate problem had just arisen. When I butchered the fish it was quite light but now well after sunset and pitch black. As I leant over the side to wash the chopping board I was puzzled to see it glowing fluro green, as were my hands, the knife and the bag the fish had been stored in. I’ll spare you the hideous details only to say that category 4 diarrhoea on a small boat without a toilet, in the middle of the night, is only funny in hindsight. I never did get to the bottom (pardon the pun) of it and I’d be interested to hear from anyone with an explanation.
The frame in the burly pot reeked further revenge during my intestinal carnage. A pack of half a dozen large whaler sharks went into a frenzy, shaking the boat about as they destroyed the burly pot in an effort to get to the source of the scent. Naturally I found this most comforting as I sat, butt exposed, over the gunwale.
The next morning we headed off around the eastern side trolling along the way. After yesterdays high losses I had selected a couple of old minnow lures that had done their time and that I really was ready to lose. They were dilapidated to the extent that I couldn’t even identify the brand but fortunately the hooks had recently been renewed.
Nicole was on first strike, as promised the previous night, — a decision that still taunts me to this day. The scungy old minnow on the Penn Spinfisher got slammed and the reel screamed. A large fish jumped in the distance but I only got a glimpse of it and called it for a big Queenfish. On its second jump it was clear that Nicole was doing battle with a small black marlin. It was hooked deep in the throat and it bleed throughout the twenty-minute fight. It didn’t revive after five minutes swimming it alongside the boat, so we took a fillet off the tail and gave the rest to the restaurant at Hook resort. It was way too big for our needs and we would both have rather seen it swim free but at least it got used unlike some of the larger gamefish that are often weighed and them dumped at sea . I might add that it was surprisingly good eating. Nicole regularly reminds me that ‘She’ has caught a marlin and that I haven’t.
We spent the rest of the day cruising down the island casting to northern blues, mack Tuna and throwing poppers to GT’s around the bombies and headlands.
The following morning we explored the two small inlets that run into the southern end of Hook island. They were very similar to fishing any mainland estuary in regard to species. The similarity ended there as the mangrove studded bays were full of coral bombies, rather than mud or sand, and the water was crystal clear. This meant that fish were scarce during the bright daylight hours, confining fishing to dusk, dawn and night and that extracting your average estuary fish from around the coral was a whole different ball game.
Our second overnight trip to the Whitsunday\Hamilton islands passage and Hill inlet was way too short. The waters through the passage and around the many small islands and bombies were teeming with the likes of GT’s, tuna, Mackerel and reef fish. We could have spent a week exploring these options alone but it was Hill inlet and Whitehaven beach that held the greatest fascination for us. Whitehaven beach, the hub of the tourist commissions advertising campaign and with good reason, swarms with marine life. Vast schools of whiting patrol the gin clear shallows over the brilliant silica white base. If you squint hard enough you could almost convince yourself that they were Bonefish, of which I might add, have been sighted in the area — maybe. Much larger shadows cruise a little bit wider, amongst them Golden trevally and Northern Blues well within casting distance of a fly or lure.
Hill inlet is just like any other mangrove lined estuary with its rocky outcrops, sand flats and deep holes. The mud is replaced with the same pure white sand that makes up Whitehaven beach, so you can clearly see the bottom formations in thirty feet of water just as you can see the mangrove jacks and estuary cod lunge from their mangrove or rock cover. Naturally you also get to see them wrap you back around that same piece of cover as we found out too many times. We sighted Barra, golden trevally and big javelin fish. We landed plenty of estuary cod and small trevally, hordes of black bream and even a spangled emperor.
I could have had another week just in this system alone. My only regret was missing out on extracting the mangrove jack that had been on top of my wish list for this trip. Pulling a decent jack out a creek like Hill inlet, for me, would be the ultimate fishing experience. Come to think of that sounds like just the excuse for a return visit next year.
Sydney to Airlie beach is 2136km which took us about two and a half days drive with boat in tow.
From Brisbane it’s about 1146km.
All class of accommodation is available from four star to basic camping.
We opted for cabin style accommodation at the Adventure Whitsunday caravan Park. This was one of the few accommodation options in Airlie that allowed us to park the boat right next to the cabin, adding a degree of security and convenience. In addition to this, the staff are quite happy to drive you back to the Able pt. marina ramp if you want to leave your car and trailer at the caravan park for overnighters.
Shute Harbour has a vehicle lock up facility.
Both ramps are suitable for large trailer boats.
For extended boating trips around the islands, Hook island offers limited supplies at premium prices and Hamilton island has an extensive range of supplies at surprisingly reasonable prices. Both islands have fuel, ice and water but require prior arrangement.
By Craig McGill